BERLIN (Reuters) - Former East German defense minister Heinz Kessler, sentenced to prison after the fall of the Berlin Wall for his role in the killing of people trying to flee the Communist state, has died at the age of 97, his publisher said on Thursday.
One of the few surviving leaders of East Germany and a friend of its leader Erich Honecker, Kessler was a member of the communist Politburo. As the country's last defense minister, from 1985 to 1989, he was responsible for a shoot-to-kill policy aimed at stopping people escaping to the West.
He was arrested in 1991 after speculation he was planning to flee the country, put on trial and then sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for incitement to manslaughter. He was released after five years.
Around 750 people are widely believed to have died at the East German border with the West although estimates vary greatly.
A true believer even after the East German state was defunct, Kessler attended Communist Party events until a few years ago.
He argued that those killed at the border had inflicted danger upon themselves and is widely quoted as saying that the trial "discriminated against and criminalized people with different political beliefs".
An army general, Kessler was one of the few German soldiers who deserted the Wehrmacht, the Nazi regime's army, during its advance into the Soviet Union in July 1941 and switched to the Red Army, said his publisher.
In its statement, Eulenspiegel Verlagsgruppe, which published his book "Without the Wall There Would Have Been War", said Kessler had died in a hospital in Berlin on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; editing by Ralph Boulton)